Dragon Boat Festival And Its Related Activities
The main reason for writing on the dragon boat festival is that I have already written two articles, one on the lion dance and the other on the dragon dance. I felt like sitting on a two-legged stool. So I have decided to complete the third of this trilogy of the most well-known Chinese festivals, the dragon boat festival.
Singapore street display - Quyuan in a dragon boat
History of the dragon boat festival
In most things ancient, the exact beginning is not always certain. The dragon boat festival claimed to be originated over 2000 years ago during the warring states period (475 BC - 221 BC) of China. There are many versions of its origin. There are also equally many names for this festival. They are the dragon boat festival, double fifth festival and Duanwu festival (Duanwu Jie). “Double fifth” because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. This day is supposed to be the summer solstice when the sun is hottest and daylight has its longest range. This day represents the peak moment of the male energy, hence represented by the dragon. It was on this day too, that history tells us that the great Chinese scholar poet and statesman by the name of Quyuan (pronounced : Chu Yuan) committed suicide by drowning. The Quyuan saga is perhaps the most popular and accepted version of the history of the dragon boat festival. Would it be a sheer coincidence that Duanwu festival coincided with the “double fifth” and the suicide of Quyuan?
I like this version as told to me by my people when I was a small boy many many years ago. There was this patriotic scholar poet by the name of Quyuan who was also an advisor in the kingdom of Chu, during the Warring States era around 300 BC. However, Quyuan was betrayed in court intrigue and was banished to the south of the Yangtze River. In 278 BC, when the kingdom of Chu was conquered by rival kingdom of Qin, Quyuan with great disappointment walked into the Miluo River to drown himself. Miluo River is in today’s Hunan Province.
The villagers having learnt about Quyuan’s suicide, raced in their boats hoping to rescue him but in vain. In order to frighten and distract all the fishes away from Quyuan’s body, they beat drums and splashed their paddles against the water, and threw rice dumplings into the river. The rice dumplings were the triangular rice dumplings called zongzi (pronounced as “chong chi”). An extended legend was that Quyuan’s spirit appeared one night to inform the villagers that they should wrap their rice dumplings in silk cloth to prevent the dragon from eating them. Of course there was no such thing as wrapping dumplings with silk cloth; but with bamboo leaves.
From then, since ancient times, dragon boat races were held by competing villages to commemorate the saga of Quyuan. Today, we have dragon boat race competitions throughout the world on the fifth of the fifth month, which usually falls in the month of June.
Quyuan has been regarded as a supreme model of patriotism in China. In December 2007, China officially included fifth of the fifth month as the dragon boat festival national holiday. In fact in the early 1950s China even issued a postage stamp in honor of Quyuan. And on 30 September, 2009, the dragon boat festival was added to the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Dragon boats ready for action
Decorative dragon boat heads
Zongzi or "Ba Chang" (Freshly bought from my favorite supplier)
That's me enjoying the ba chang
The Dragon Boat Race
Three activities during the dragon boat festival
The dragon boat festival is celebrated with three main activities.
1. Drinking special wine and wearing perfumed pouches
Bearing in mind this period is the peak of summer with diseases ready to break out, it is a tradition that certain activities on this day are also related to health issues, such as drinking special wine and wearing perfumed medicine pouches to ward off evil spirits. Another belief is that if you are able to make a raw egg stay upright at noon on this day, you will have very good luck for the rest of the year. I think I am going to try this, the next “fifth of fifth”.
An update: Today is 2 June, 2014, and it is the Chinese "fifth of fifth". I just tried the egg balancing, but it did not work. Maybe the geographical location is another factor to consider. But my friend did it! Look at the photo below. The raw eggs all stayed upright! I shall try again next year; this time on the floor.
2. Eating of zongzi (rice dumpling)
The other two activities are the highlights of the dragon boat festival. The eating of zongzi (pronounced as “chong chi”) or rice dumplings. Traditionally, zongzi is eaten on this day, but nowadays, you can buy zongzi anytime of the year. There are many types of zongzi, bearing in mind the vastness and diversity of China. They vary in ingredients and size, but all have the ubiquitous triangular shape, with a few variations. It needs skill through practice to be able to wrap the dumpling with bamboo leaves and tie the zongzi. The most common zongzi is made of glutinous rice with black sauce pork, mushroom, salted egg york and chestnut wrapped inside it. The dumplings are boiled for many hours before they are ready for consumption.
The term “zongzi” is in Mandarin Chinese. Different dialectic groups will call it by different names. In our Hokkien dialect (as spoken in Taiwan) it is called “kiam ba chang”, meaning salty pork dumpling. In the island of Penang, Malaysia, where I live, we simply call it “ba chang”, and there is the annual “ba chang” competition based on taste and wrapping excellence. Incidentally, ”ba chang” is one of my favourite food. I always buy them from my favorite supplier in Penang.
3. The dragon boat race
What were traditional boat races for the past 2000 years amongst local villages to commemorate Quyuan’s suicide, has now become an international cross-cultural sports pursuit amongst friendly groups and nations. Hong Kong held its first international dragon boat race in 1976.
Today, dragon boat races are held everywhere around the world, usually to coincide with the dragon boat festival period. They are now part of the tourist attraction as well as an international sports event. Many Asian countries have “open” international dragon boat race competitions during this period. Asian countries having such international competitions are China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. In my location, the Penang state government organizes annual “open” international dragon boat races which are well-known to dragon boat race enthusiasts throughout the world. In fact, there are many other countries in Europe and in USA and Canada which hold international dragon boat race competitions annually.
My friend did it! Raw eggs upright! 12 noon "Fifth of fifth".
The IDBF crest
IRDB model 1222 and model 912
IDBF standard dragon racing boat : Model 1222
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The dragon boat and the race
The dragon boat traditionally originated from the long and narrow boat made of timber, with the steersperson who controls and maneuvers the long paddle or rudder at the stern. Fill up the narrow boat with paddlers on both sides, a drummer sitting in front of the bow, a steersperson at the stern, rigged a dragon head in front and a dragon tail at the end , you will have transformed it into a dragon boat ready for action. The length of the boats varies in size from 9 meters (30 feet) to 30 meters (100 feet) and so is the number of paddlers. It ranges from 10 paddlers to as many as 80 paddlers. The standard competition size is 12 meters (40 feet) set by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) with 20 paddlers plus one drum leader and one sweeper or steersperson, making a total of 22 members in a team.
Transforming the traditional dragon boat races into a highly technical water sport, also resulted in changing the materials used to build the boat. Although there are still the traditional timber boats, the “competition” boats are now built with light materials such as fibreglass, aluminium and carbon fibre, making them much lighter and more streamlined for greater speed.
IDBF has come up with two standard boat models for competition purposes, called IRDB standard model 1222 and IRDB standard model 912. “IRDB” for International Racing Dragon Boat. Model 1222 is 12 meters (40feet) long, and accommodate 20 paddlers plus one drum leader and one steersperson. The smaller model 912 is 9 meters (30 feet) for a team of 12 members. The most popular model is of course the 1222, which is usually used for top competitions. The distance for a standard sprint race is 500 meters.
The standard rhythm accompaniment for the dragon boat race is the sole drum. However, traditionally, there are those with additional gong and cymbals to make the race merrier.
Enough said; let us now enjoy watching the youtube videos on the dragon boat race.
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